The lights turn down, the 3-D glasses go on, and what follows is one of the most basic and honest reasons to go the cinema; pure delight. James Cameron finally unveils his Avatar and it is one of the most entertaining and visually accomplished works of his entire career. This is the pulp sci-fi feast fans thought they were getting some ten years ago when they went walking into The Phantom Menace hoping for magic to strike. When it happens, you can hear the thunder and feel the electricity. This is why I love the movies.
Cameron has been promising a technical revolution and he and his team have delivered it, no doubt. From the nearly flawless motion capture to the brighter, clearer 3-D technology, Avatar is an important evolutionary step in the development of the modern blockbuster. Tonight, jungle-covered islands floated before my eyes in a sea of white mist, elegant alien pterosaurs winged their way through amber-soaked skies, careening past our theater seats before vanishing into the horizon. An entire race of azure giants lived and fought and died just inches away from my popcorn bucket.
But no matter how great the special effects or the fancy packaging, Avatar would be lost without a narrative and characters we care about. Cameron’s solution is to give us a protagonist whose introduction to the world of Pandora is similar to ours; Jake Sully is going there as a visitor and he’s along for the ride with a body that technically isn’t his.
The year is 2154 and Sully is a paraplegic Marine whose twin brother was killed, earning him a free pass to an alien world where the current corporate/military regime are chomping at the bit to strip-mine the entire planet. The only thing holding them back are the Na’vi, the indigenous blue-skinned warriors who live there, and a group of crusading scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). With the help of home-grown human/Na’vi hybrids called Avatars, Grace and her team upload their consciousness into alien skins and then fraternize with the locals. Sully’s deceased bro was one of Grace’s best and brightest, but Sully shares his genetics and therefore can operate the spare avatar.
After getting separated from his crew, Jake finds himself ushered into Na’vi training rituals with his guide Neyetiri, a local alien hottie who saved him from being eaten by Pandoran fauna. When trigger happy Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) decides to unload the heavy ammunition, Jake has to question his own allegiances and the moral implications associated with ‘relocating’ an entire culture. A simple and archetypal story—the stranger in a strange land who learns to walk the walk—is transformed into a wonderwork of movie escapism.
As a story, Avatar is pretty basic stuff. A man is confronted with a culture alien to him and in the process of adapting, considers the value of that culture in the face of his own. It nearly writes itself. The environmentally conscious themes go down easier once Cameron introduces the sci-fi truth behind the Na’vi’s connection with their land; it’s interesting and thought-provoking and it gives them motivation more intrinsic and substantial than the fuel-hungry callousness of the Earthling military. The delight is in the details and there is no shortage of them here; from the smallest whirling protoplasts to the deadliest flying nightmares, each animal inhabitant of Pandora has a purpose, a mythology and an unique physiology. Sully may be a military man but he comes into his own while with the Na’vi. His transformation, as written, is a plausible one.
Visually, the movie is a revelation. This is an experience that has been designed to manufacture sensation, emotion and perception in the same ways that an actual environment would. Cameron uses all kinds of spatial orientations to direct our understanding of the physical laws governing Pandora. When Neyetiri and Jake go to wrangle the vicious, pterosaur-like Banshees, and she demonstrates how to fly one, I was taken aback by the singular beauty of the sequence. Not how the scene was put together but by the physical details of it; watching the muscles stretching under the skin, the wind blowing against the leathery wings, and the rider joyously guiding the animal up and around the floating islands. I had stopped processing the scene as special effects and had begun to regard it as a natural event, something singularly unique.
The acting is universally good, and all of the physical actors deliver grounded performances. I liked Lang’s take on the villainous colonel; he makes drinking coffee during genocide a trait of deep significance. Sam Worthington has an easy energy as Sully and he’s far more charismatic and relaxed here than he was in Terminator: Salvation. Sigourney Weaver is a welcome presence in any movie, and I adored her here and oddly enough found her Na’vi avatar to be the most attractive character in the film.
Regarding those Na’vi, they are amazingly rendered to the point that the uncanny valley effect that would make them stiff-necked, dead-eyed puppets is nowhere to be found. There is a texture to the skin, a sag around the mouth or lips and a flare of the nostrils that make them seem as if they are flesh and blood. I did not know Wes Studi was in the film, but I identified him almost immediately based solely upon his Na’vi likeness. Zoe Saldana as Neyetiri is giving a terrific performance that has been expertly tweaked and defined by the animation team.
Although Cameron crams his film with the trappings of space opera and the remnants of hard sci-fi technology, he’s still more enamored with the action sensibilities of his scripts than the intellectual ones. Avatar may be pedestrian on a story level, but in telling that story, it channels all of its resources to deliver something stirring, thrilling and overwhelming in its clarity and energy.
The battles that make up the last third of the film are unlike anything I’ve witnessed in fantasy filmmaking. The comic-book scale of the last stand on Pandora is mythic and melodramatic, but all in proper measure. There’s cheese here for sure, but Cameron has the courage of his kooky convictions so we go with it.
No matter, this is a tremendous work, and one likely to find the audience it deserves.
Check out these other Avatar reviews from around the web:
Roger Ebert’s review HERE
Droid’s review at Werewolves on The Moon HERE
Michael Wilmington’s review HERE
Motion Captured’s review HERE
AV Club’s review HERE